(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores September 2020.)
You probably know me: I'm the Kemp Treasure Girl. Maybe you had the books as a child. Perhaps your dad read them to you in those wilting hours of sleep where books become dreams and dreams become books. Did you look for the treasure, digging in your garden, unsure of what you were searching for?
Mine was an unusual infamy for one so young. Not an all-encompassing, celebrity fame, but one that flattened me into two dimensions and picked out the color of my eyes and my dress. One that stopped people in the street and made their necks crane back round to gaze at me.
The version of me in the books was my friend. She was always there for me, sharing in my adventures, appearing at the lifting of a page. But children grow up, and as I grew taller and wiser, Romilly Kemp in the book stayed young and innocent, a sickly sweet imposter who wore my dress and demanded my father's love, leeching it away until there was barely any left for me at all.
But then I made a real friend. Someone I could trust: someone who knew intimately my deepest, darkest thoughts even if I dared not acknowledge them myself.
But the beginnings of a friendship are like the beginning of a book: you never know how they will turn out until the very end.
Braër was an ancient farmhouse. A month of living there had still not unearthed a fraction of its secrets.
As I ran from the house, tugging on unfamiliar rain boots, I stared up at its mossy roof and dirty walls. Dad told me that it had probably once been called Brother Farm, but time and the soft Suffolk accent had changed it.
The house itself was long and low and surrounded on three sides by a moat clogged with cow pies and slime. In the middle of the water was an old fountain. Perched atop it was a gargoyle with a sinister, winking face. It ogled me as I ran past, its eyes bulbous and staring.
On the south side of the house, down an overgrown path, stretched a bumpy meadow filled with sagging grass. It was the perfect base for my newly invented invisible army, and the edge of my territory. I could go there on my own, making pretend campfires and having sword fights with prickly bushes, knowing that I was safe, even though I could barely see the house above the long, scratchy grass.
As I set off down the path toward my camp, a sharp whistle brought me back. Dad was stooped in the back door, his huge shoulders nearly touching the frame on either side. Something small and snow-like was curled up in his open palm.
"What is it?"
"I wanted to draw one, so I thought, why not?" he said, planting the tiny kitten into my eager arms, and suddenly it was mine. "It's a Siamese," he said, wiping his hands on his trousers, leaving a snail's trail of white fur on the corduroy.
"Is it a girl or boy?" I asked, trying to look through the fur at the correct place.
"A boy." Dad crouched down, looking at me as I hugged the kitten. Briefly he reached forward and touched my cheek, and I leaned into the roughness of his hand.
"Yes," he said to himself, his voice a growl of love, "it's that look in your eyes right there that I want to capture." He straightened up, his knees creaking. "I'm going to need to paint him. And you, of course. I have an idea..." He trailed off. Frowning at me, he turned on his heel and entered the house, leaving the kitten and me alone.
I examined his bony body. He was small and soft, and smelled of wee and sawdust. He had pale creamy fur tinged with chocolate brown at each edge. As I was studying him, he uncurled himself, tipping off my arms toward the moat below us. I caught him by the tail just in time, tucking him back safely into the crook of my arm. He opened his eyes for the first time and stared at me with big red-blue irises. He was hot and slightly sticky-damp in my hands, and I loved him immediately.